How Drexel’s STAR Scholars Program Still Went According to Plan Despite Pandemic
Though it takes place a full three terms after they arrive on campus, some first-year students who participate in Drexel University’s STAR Scholars program the summer going into their second year plan to do so even before they arrive on campus for the first time as Dragons.
However well they planned in advance, this year’s cohort of research scholars certainly couldn’t have expected what the COVID-19 pandemic would have in store for them and the program this summer. That is, completing research and final poster board presentations remotely, or having to defer their involvement in the program to the fall-winter or spring-summer terms of this coming academic year in order to participate in on-campus research as part of phase 2 of the University’s Research Ramp-Up Plan.
But like a lot of opportunities Drexel has to offer students, the pandemic couldn’t stop this program from moving forward one way or another.
“As long as research was continuing at Drexel, we felt very strongly that our 2020 STAR Scholars could and should be able to participate in those activities,” said Jaya Mohan, director of Undergraduate Research and Enrichment Programs for the Pennoni Honors College. “We know the impact the STAR Scholars program has on our students, like increasing their confidence in their own abilities and helping them clarify their academic and professional goals, and we knew we had to do everything in our power to provide that experience to these students.”
Three of the 101 students from across disciplines who participated in the STAR Scholars program this summer spoke with DrexelNow of their experiences conducting research remotely under the tutelage of esteemed faculty mentors. They will present their findings during the annual STAR Scholars Summer Showcase, which will be hosted online this year for a full week starting on Sept. 17, and is open to the Drexel community as well as the public.
“STAR Scholars was actually one of the deciding factors of going to Drexel because of the money factor and also because of the one-on-one experience that you get with the mentor,” said Eleazar, a rising second-year majoring in public health.
Patrick Henderson, a rising second-year biological sciences student, had the same reasons for applying to STAR Scholars, as he knew undergraduate research opportunities would be important to his planned career in disease-related biology research, specifically vaccinology or immunology. He found the application process, including the essay questions, to be pretty streamlined.
“Knowing how to write and communicate creatively while also being in a technical field like science is a good skill to have,” he said. “I could not have been happier when I was accepted into the STAR Scholars program.”
Once accepted, Henderson also said that the outreach to his prospective mentor felt extremely important. That was to Irwin Chaiken, PhD, professor of Biochemistry & Molecular Biology in the College of Medicine — someone who doesn’t even usually teach undergraduate students, let alone first-year students.
“Writing that initial email felt like writing another essay,” Henderson said of that outreach. “You need to be able to sell yourself and show your interest.”
Reaching out to her faculty mentor, Dornsife School of Public Health Assistant Professor Usama Bilal, MD, PhD, was also a nerve-wracking for Eleazar, though she realized that getting over that hump could open up a world of possibilities.
“I was just freaking out because of all the COVID-19 changes and stuff, but STAR has encouraged me to branch out,” Eleazar said.
She worked with Franco Montalto, PhD, a College of Engineering professor of environmental engineering focusing on green infrastructure and societal water needs, to study cooling centers — and specifically to build one for the community on a city block in the Hunting Park area of Philadelphia in a way they could also remain socially distant due to COVID-19.
“There's this issue for people who don't have air conditioning and kind of need a place to cool down during the summer,” Seiden said. “So the goal for this project was to identify a community that's really in need of these cooling centers and then try to implement something where they could still stay socially distant but get cool during the summer.”
So, after doing research for much of the 10-week program, Seiden helped her research team in August implement their planned features of the cooling center, including areas for shading, pavement watering and greenery. Though working remotely made some of this planning longer and more laborious, Seiden was excited to see the fruits of that labor in the data collected and its effect on her final project.
“We're just trying to see, could these systems really cool down the street and help people kind of get outside a little bit more but still stay socially distant?” she said. “I think it will be cool. It's definitely been tricky being behind a screen doing all this stuff, but it's been a lot of fun.”
Both Henderson and Eleazar’s projects focused more on remote literature review than hands-on experimentation, but were by no means less impactful. Henderson studied DNA-based vaccines and how different approaches could improve vaccines that target conditions, like HIV or even SARS-CoV-2, the disease that causes COVID-19. Eleazar focused on the U.S. immigrant population, specifically Hispanic immigrants and Asian immigrants, though her project strives to encompass all regions of origin. She is now in the process of doing data analysis and visualization, and hopes to identify trends to inform their understanding about how heterogenous factors amongst the immigrant population factor into health and health outcomes.
Another part of Eleazar’s experience was “sitting in” on virtual meetings of the ongoing Salud Urbana en América Latina (SALURBAL) project out of the Dornsife School of Public Health’s Urban Health Collaborative, of which her mentor is an investigator.
“I hope to get involved with the Urban Health Collaborative going forward,” Eleazar said. “I really like my mentor and my co-mentor [Dornsife Associate Research Professor Mariana Lazo, MD, PhD], and they have been a really big help to me.”
“This whole experience taught me to weed out the curiosities so I can focus on information that's not only relevant to my research project topic, but also applicable to the real world,” Henderson added about his research.
Though he thought when applying to the program that he’d be doing more in-person lab work this summer, Henderson said he’s glad there’s a lot about the STAR Scholars program that remained unchanged by the pandemic, including working with his mentor and co-mentor on the same deliverables.
“I applaud the Undergraduate Research & Enrichment Programs for doing their best to maintain the same structure and deliverables of the program before the pandemic,” he said. “I'm not learning hard laboratory skills right now, but the life skills I’ve learned, like adaptability, networking and self-management, helped me make the most of the opportunities I’ve had over this summer.”
For Seiden, she still feels like she’s getting a good sense of what it’s like to do research in her field, and she’s also sharpening important skills before starting her co-op at PECO in the fall.
“I think this STAR project is good practice for that and practice for putting yourself out there,” she said. “I just think this whole process has really taught me how to actually apply the skills that I've learned in school to a job, and [operate] in a professional setting.”
All three of these scholars are looking forward to presenting their research at the Virtual STAR Scholars Summer Showcase on Sept. 17, as well as learning more about what their peers were up to this summer.
“Somebody could be in my major, but doing a whole different project,” Seiden said. “There's so many opportunities for research in each and every one of our fields.”
One thing Eleazar said might be apparent from the showcase and is also important for future STAR students to keep in mind is that research as part of the program also does not necessarily have to fall in line with their declared major.
“You're not limited to what you're studying, and STAR is a chance to explore your different interests or maybe just a field that you had no idea about before,” she said.
Henderson agreed with this sentiment, saying that “STAR Scholars is a great opportunity to research, discover, explore, and experiment with what interests you.” He added that it can help Drexel students get to know the University’s research community, and start to make beneficial connections that could inform the rest of your undergraduate career and beyond.
“Making strong connections with research mentors and faculty early on gets your name out into the industry ahead of time,” he said, “and can get your foot in the door for employment because someone sees potential in you.”
“It's really exciting to see this is what's coming out of Drexel,” Seiden added. “These are the cool new things that we're researching and that you can get involved in as well.”
Each 2020 STAR Scholar has created a poster, written an abstract, and created a pre-recorded video of themselves discussing their projects for the Virtual Summer Showcase. These will be available online from Sept. 17–24 via the online platform Symposium, and available at www.drexel.edu/starscholars. Members of the Drexel community will be able to login using their Drexel email address to leave comments on students’ work.